October 30, 2014

RANKED: Classic Doctor Who on Netflix

Eighteen classic Doctor Who stories from the 60's, 70's and 80's are available for instant streaming on Netflix. If you only know the 'new' (i.e. 2005 and up) series, want to investigate the old series but feel daunted by its half-century legacy and don't know where to start, here's our completely subjective ranking of the Netflix stories.

Before we begin:
- The stories of the classic series (1963-89) were broadcast in individual episodes (usually four, sometimes six, other times as little as two and as many as twelve ), usually 25 minutes in length, so a typical story runs the length of a feature film.
- In the black and white days (1963-69), the show was recorded virtually live to tape, and re-takes were very rare, so minor line fluffs and technical glitches were common.
- In typical BBC fashion, through the 80's, interior shots were on video and exterior shots were on film, so the transition between the two could be jarring. Complicated FX were also frequently done on film.
- We can't talk about early Doctor Who without talking about special effects. Before Star Wars, audiences were a lot more forgiving about hand-puppet dinosaurs, wobbly sets, latex alien suits, flying saucers on strings, etc. The BBC allotted Doctor Who about the same budget as a regular drama series, and the effects, such as they were, still were the most technically advanced television effects of the time.
- There are no Colin Baker (Doctor #6) stories on Netflix, except for his appearance at the end of "Caves of Androzani." Trust us, that's for the best.
- This list does not necessarily reflect how *I* personally feel about these stories, but more my estimate of how fans of the New Series might embrace these stories. I would, for example, rank the two B/W stories much higher.

OK, now for the list, starting from the top:

1. City of Death (1979, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana II
Writers: Douglas Adams, David Fisher and Graham Williams under the pen-name David Agnew
This is my go-to story to initiate newbies. The plot? Briefly summarized: the Doctor and Romana are enjoying a holiday in Paris when they become embroiled in a time-traveling plot involving selling multiple copies of the Mona Lisa (all original!) on the black market to finance the scientific research of a debonair art thief who's actually an ancient alien war lord attempting to return to a pivotal moment in history. Baker and Lalla Ward have sparkling chemistry (they would later marry, albeit briefly), Adams' script is just the right balance of scientific gobbledygook, wit, and goofy humor, and the Paris location filming is great.
Watch For: a hysterical cameo appearance in Episode Four (I won't spoil the surprise)
Recycling: Adams re-used plot elements from this story and his unfinished/unbroadcast story "Shada" in his novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

2. The Caves of Androzani (1984, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Peter Davison
Companion: Peri
Writer: Robert Holmes
Apart from the stupid and pointless Magma Beast, this is near-perfection. The Doctor and Peri wander into a web of political and economic intrigue centered around a precious mineral known as Spectrox. The character of Peri pretty much existed to be drooled over by campy villains, and Sharaz Jek, in his Phantom of the Opera slash BDSM mask, is the absolute pinnacle. Robert Holmes had been writing for the series since the late 60's, and his best tropes and anti-capitalist sentiments are on display. Ratcheting up the tension is the fact that the Doctor and Peri are slowly dying thanks to a casual mishap five minutes in, ultimately resulting in Davison's Doctor regenerating into Colin Baker. Davison calls this his favorite story, so much so that if there were more scripts like this, he'd've stayed in the role.

3. Carnival of Monsters (1973, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companion: Jo Grant
Writer: Robert Holmes
For the previous three seasons, the Doctor has been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords (though the definition of this exile was a bit malleable), but after the previous story (The Three Doctors, more on that later), he is once again free to roam time and space. And where does he land? In the cargo hold of a ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Or so we think. And what does it have to do with the Amazing Vorg and his lovely assistant Shirna as he peddles his Miniscope to the gray, drab, bureaucratic denizens of planet Inter Minor? One of Robert Holmes' best scripts.
Look For: Ian Marter plays a dashing young sailor, and would later return as companion Harry Sullivan when Tom Baker took over as Doctor. Also Michael Wisher and Peter Halliday, two of Doctor Who's most memorable guest actors, under the gray makeup.

4. The Ark In Space (1975, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companions: Sarah Jane Smith, Harry Sullivan
Writer: Robert Holmes (sensing a theme here?)
The Doctor, Sarah and Harry land on a space ark, thousands of years in the future, where the last surviving humans sit in suspended animation after the Earth is rendered uninhabitable from solar flares, but as these things usually go, they've overslept, there's been vandalism, and an alien menace lurks in the ventilation shaft. This is Doctor Who's version of Alien, but four years earlier and with no budget (and on television, so everything is brightly lit) but they still manage to make green bubble-wrap look menacing. There are some glaring limitations in the budget, but the concept trumps all.
Iconic Moment: Tom Baker's "homo sapiens" speech
Trivia: to save money, the set was re-used for "Revenge of the Cybermen" a few stories later.
More Trivia: The "In Space" was added to distinguish this story from the Hartnell story "The Ark," another story about the future of humanity facing peril on a space ark.
Unintentional Racism: The Ark's sleepers are genetically selected... and yup, they're all white.

5. The Green Death (1973, 6 episodes)
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companion: Jo Grant (and the UNIT team)
Writer: Robert Sloman
In an economically depressed Welsh mining town, a new petroleum refinery claims its process creates no waste, but the hippie scientists living in the nearby commune (led by the dashing Clifford Jones) believe otherwise. The Doctor looks in and discovers that, yup, the refinery is dumping its toxic sludge into the abandoned mines, which among other things, is creating a swarm of giant maggots impervious to UNIT bullets. The refinery's mysterious "BOSS" has a hypnotic hold over its employees, and turns out to be a supercomputer with megalomaniacal designs on world domination to achieve 'maximum efficiency and productivity.' A powerfully leftist political stance for the show, overtly conflating capitalism with inhumanity; definitely not recommended for Ayn Rand fans.
Famous Moment: At the end, when the Doctor sneaks out of Jo and Cliff's engagement/farewell party and drives away, alone and heart(s)broken.
Secretly Best Moment: Stevens' tear, after he regains his humanity and saves the world.
Trivia: Jo and Prof. Jones were a real-life couple at the time.
Continuity: The Metebelis Crystal would become a major plot element in Pertwee's farewell story "Planet of Spiders" the following year.

6. Pyramids of Mars (1975, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Sarah Jane Smith
Writer: Steven Harris (pseudonym for Robert Holmes and Louis Greifer)
Doctor Who's version of The Mummy. Sutekh, an ancient God, is trapped in a state of paralysis in an Egyptian pyramid by the Eye of Horus, a ruby sitting at the center of a pyramid on Mars. When his tomb is opened, he awakens and sets the stage for his return... with robot mummies. It takes a little while to get going, but Sutekh is one B.A.M.F. of a villain. The showdown between him and the Doctor is truly chilling, and one of Baker's best moments.

7. The Three Doctors (1973, 4 episodes)
Doctor: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee
Companion: Jo Grant (plus the UNIT team)
Writers: Bob Baker and Dave Martin
If you want to experience the first three Doctors in one sitting and don't want to sit through a black-and-white story (sigh... really?), this is your best bet. This tenth anniversary story was intended to exhibit all three doctors equally, until it was evident that Hartnell's infirmity would make this impossible (the writers' solution is clever, though). The interplay between Troughton and Pertwee is a treat. Omega, the Time Lord villain at the heart of the story, is played way over-the-top, the gel-guards are very very silly, there's a lot of capture-escape-recapture plot padding, but it's a whole lot of fun.

8. The Curse of Fenric (1989, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Sylvester McCoy
Companion: Ace
Writer: Ian Briggs
The Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy eras were arguably a nadir for the series: the budget and audience kept shrinking, the BBC execs wanted the show gone, producer John Nathan Turner wanted out, and many stories were (in our opinion at least) awful. But the 26th and final season was a brief renaissance, and this was the highlight, with a lot of concepts that laid the groundwork for the new series. It took 25 years to come up with a companion with a backstory, family, and an emotional catharsis to undergo, and seeing this in the classic series was a bit of a revelation. The plot? WWII codebreakers, Russian navy spies (who switch from sub-titled Russian to heavily accented English for no reason whatsoever), and a dormant Norse God coming back to life. And lots of monsters rising from the sea in latex masks. Or something.

9. The Ribos Operation (1978, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana I
Writer: Robert Holmes
Season sixteen's stories, for the first time in the show's history, comprised an all-encompassing arc; each story centered around finding a segment of the Key to Time, and this was the first story. Although set on an alien planet, there are far more medieval elements than sci-fi. Two intergalactic con men attempt to scam the disgraced warrior prince Graff Vynda-K (an awesomely whackjob name) into buying a planet, and the Doctor and Romana are stuck in the middle. It's a Robert Holmes script so it's witty, funny, and wise, but its truly iconic moment is the Binro the Heretic scene. BINRO WAS RIGHT!

10. The Horror Of Fang Rock (1977, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Leela
Writer: Terrence Dicks
A hastily-written script, but very effective. A shape-shifting alien crash-lands near an isolated lighthouse, and starts picking off the crew. It's a little slow-moving (and the episode one cliffhanger is a dud), but stick with this one. Particularly chilling (spoilers, sorry) is the body count: although the enemy menace is defeated, every character except the Doctor and Leela dies.

11. Spearhead From Space (1970, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companion: Liz Shaw (plus the UNIT crew)
Writer: Robert Holmes
After an unprecedented six month hiatus (after running virtually every week for six years), Doctor Who did a full re-boot with a new lead actor, a new companion (who was also a scientist), a new Earthbound action-oriented direction, and in COLOR!! This one was shot entirely on film due to a strike at the BBC, so it has a cinematic quality to it. The Nestene Consciousness and their animated plastic soldiers, the Autons, were so iconic and tied to the notion of a Doctor Who re-boot, that they were also the villains of the very first New Series episode, complete with an homage to Spearhead's memorable scene of the shop window dummies.
Trivia: the film clips of doll manufacturing were originally set to Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well," but the music is removed from all VHS and DVD releases.

12. The Leisure Hive (1980, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana II
Writer: David Fisher
When John Nathan Turner took over as producer after the troubled Graham Williams era, his impact was swift and dramatic: new credits and theme music, a new pool of writers, phasing out K9, an emphasis on synthesizer music, and experimentation with the latest special effects. Tom Baker is a bit lost this season, his seventh and final in the role, and his performance has an autumnal quality with a very tangible change of focus away from the overtly comic direction he'd taken the Doctor. The grab-bag plot involves cloning, nuclear holocaust, and an alien holiday camp. Director Lovett Bickford opens with a memorable panning shot on the beach, and the makeup work on the Doctor when he is aged several hundred years is outstanding.

13. The Mind Robber (1968, 5 episodes)
Doctor: Patrick Troughton
Companions: Zoe, Jamie, and... Alternate Jamie!
Writer: Derrick Sherwin (ep 1) and Peter Ling (ep 2-5)
Of the two B/W era episodes available on Netflix, this narrowly gets precedence over the other, if anything for the boldly experimental plot and the boundary-pushing special effects (some that work, others that don't). The TARDIS lands outside of the known Universe, in the Land of Fiction, in which anything can happen depending on the imagination of the controller. Thanks to the 'anything goes' structure, the story is even able to absorb the temporary loss of one of the companions, when Fraser Hines' illness kept Jamie out of episode Two. It was too late to re-write the script, so a brilliantly unique solution was devised...

14. The Aztecs (1964, 4 episodes)
Doctor: William Hartnell
Companions: Susan, Ian and Barbara
Writer: John Lucarotti
Probably the best of the surviving Hartnell era stories. For the first four seasons, the series alternated between science fiction-focused and history-focused stories. In the latter, the Doctor & Co. would land in Earth's past, get separated from the TARDIS, interact with famous people or critical moments in history, and attempt to escape without A) Getting Killed or B) Changing History. They land in an Aztec tomb which closes behind them, shutting them off from the TARDIS. The Aztecs hail Barbara as a re-incarnated goddess since she'd grabbed a bracelet off a corpse while in the tomb (um, eww...). Barbara appalls the Doctor and incites the wrath of the Aztec shaman by denouncing the practice of human sacrifice. Meanwhile, the Doctor has to woo the widow of the tomb's architect to find a way back to the TARDIS, Ian makes an enemy of the warrior chief, and Susan tries to avoid getting married. In the end they get out alive, but leave a considerable mess behind - shattered faith, spilled blood and broken hearts.

15. The Pirate Planet (1977, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana I
Writer: Douglas Adams (under the pen-name David Agnew)
Part Two in the Key To Time saga, this one's a mixed bag. A lot of great sci-fi concepts and a witty script, a fantastic villain in The Captain, and a nice twist at the end, but underdone by a weak supporting cast, some sloppy production work, and Tom Baker's alternately indifferent, silly, or over the top acting.

16. The Androids of Tara (1977, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana I
Writer: David Fisher
Part Four of the Key To Time saga. The plot: Prisoner of Zenda, with androids in it. And a really, really, REALLY stupid looking Taran Wood Beast, so stupid looking that it almost hobbles the entire story even though it's on screen for maybe five seconds. The villainous Count Grendel is fun, and the climactic swordfight is sufficiently swashbuckly, but meh.

17. The Power of Kroll (1977, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana I
Writer: Robert Holmes
Part Five of the Key to Time saga. Doctor Who attempts King Kong, but with a giant squid. Not Robert Holmes' best script by any measure, hampered further by budgetary limitations and miscasting (though it is fun to watch Philip Madoc visibly seething that he's not playing Thawn).

18. The Visitation (1982, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Peter Davison
Companion: Nyssa, Tegan, Adric
Writer: Eric Saward
Saward has his fans, but we're not among them. The Terleptyl looks great, but there's nothing else memorable about him. Since the plot centers around the Great Plague and Great Fire of London, we'll bet Saward intended to set it in 1660's London, but the budget confined him to a nearby village with an apparent population of five. And the plot is one of the most egregious examples of capture, escape, re-capture. The vagabond actor Richard Mace is memorable, but that's about all there is here. There's no action. None. Just wandering around and talking for four episodes, with three crap cliffhangers in between. Others seem to rate this highly, but to us, it's a dud.

COMING SOON: The Best Dr Who Episodes Not On Netflix

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